Ebedi and Me: A writer’s pilgrimage — Omale Allen Abduljabbar
“Be careful not to want any particular thing so much’’, an Arabic proverb says. It also concludes, “because you may just have it.’’ Hmmmm. Ok another one, one of my favourites, reminds me of my homie days, the days of youthful friendly waves, when I was young and free and had no care in the world. These days I look at myself in the mirror and I see a middle-aged man, I look like the dad I use to have, that I once looked up to, now I have my wife RahmahAllah and five kids looking up to me, all the anxiety I nursed leaving home for the sleepy hamlet of Iseyin, home of the famous Ebedi International Writers Residency. “Now that we found love, what are we gonna do with it?’’ Remember the rap song? Yeah, sure you do. That is Dwight Myers, the artiste known as Heady D and the Boys.
I recall over a decade ago I had just served my final term as Public Relations officer-North with the Association of Nigerian Authors under the leadership of Dr Wale Okediran and he announced the idea of Ebedi, we all welcomed and received the news with good cheer. It has rolled over ever since, playing host to about 150 writers worldwide.
Here’s the thing, each time I saw the post ‘’four new artists arrive at Ebedi International Writers Residency”, seeing that I was not one of that four, I would feel like a knife stab in my guts, like I was a failure of sorts. Strange.
So for so long, I craved Ebedi, dreamed of it. Longed for it; like the dear and the water brook. Like frellis and Canantiums, the nectar and butterfly of my creation.
Now am here. So what?
You ask, what’s to be said about being at the Residency?
The first thing I noticed is the silence. That tranquil essence of bliss. The stoppage of time. All the hustle-bustle and daily routine of taking care of the family, rising early to go and return home from work. Neither visiting nor anyone visiting you. Your blood pressure is cool and calm. Ha! Aristotle once scribbled, “the best of life consist of ignorance before you learn to rejoice and grieve’’. Being the first to arrive, my road trip from Utako in Abuja to Ibadan took eight hours. The fatal accident with two dead bodies laid beside each other, just at the outskirt of Gwagwalada, donkeys from the same trailer grazing nearby unperturbed brought zero comfort. “I would go when I go I guess’’, I mutter quietly. Praying for the dead.
“My dear am in Ibadan’’, I called home to the genuine relieve of RahmahAllah. The one hour trip to Iseyin was a smooth cruise. The plea from the only other passenger to the driver to slow down went completely on deaf ears as he was determined to simply explore the tarred lonely road. I held my breath and kept calm and thankfully, we soon arrived Iseyin amidst a barrage of directives from the resident admin, Mr Tunde.
Picked from Ebedi Community Grammar School gate by the ebullient house keeper Madam Cecilia, we jumped into a keke which had a flat tyre a few meters to the Residency. We ditched it and completed the rest of the journey on foot. “Welcome to Ebedi International writers Residency’’ she managed in fair English as she opened the gate to a sprawling expanse of a white building resembling the house of a German baron.
Yea! The pilgrim finally reaches his pilgrimage.
“Dr Okediran said I should give you the Wole Soyinka Room’’. Said Madam Cecilia. “Sweet’’, was all I could say. Going round later after she has left and I had congratulated myself with hot Amala, pomo, ewedu and stew soup, I discover four other rooms marked with the names of other remarkable members of our exceptional tribe. On entering into the building, The Shitu Bakare Adio Ajala (Omo Ebedi Hall) is the first to welcome you. Adorned with paintings and several artworks, ideal for readings and literary events. By the left as you head inwards is the Abubakar Gimba Room. Wao! I felt immediately like genulating before the door. Allah bless his soul. He was arguably the very best of us all. He was as prolific and he was humane. His singular role in recovering the ANA Writers Village land in Mpape Abuja after it was stolen by unscrupulous and nefarious politicians will never be forgotten. I recall vividly, he was the first ANA President that Dr Okediran directed me to when I was furiously searching for a job. Next is the spacious dining room with two sculpted bulldogs and kitchen. A stair case leads you up into another part of the house where you’re welcomed by a cool sitting room. Available too is a courtyard right in the middle of the building for star gazing and cool breezes during the hot weather. The Mabel Segun Room, Chinua Achebe Room and Wole Soyinka Room are all clustered together around the seating room as the spirits of all four writers (living and alive) remain in perpetual dialogue over The Trouble with Nigeria and the role of literature in addressing this.
I found being a resident in The Soyinka Room to be most troubling. Quantum electrodynamics; properties of electromagnetic radiation and interactions, too many electrically charged particles. I was a continuous warrior in my dreams!
“My dear, this place is too quiet’’, I call the attention of RahmahAllah the next day as uploaded my alter ego Masaihead, my artist self and get myself fully ready to write.
“I thought that`s what you left me and the kids for?’’ came her response with a chortle. “Nooo, this is too much’’ I fire back. “it’s the silence of the tomb’’.
“Allen, how are you? How are you finding Ebedi?’’ Dr Okediran called the next morning. “Ah, I can`t believe am actually here at last. Am sooooo grateful sir. I promise you a masterpiece from my time here.’’ “That`s good. How many of you are there now?’’ “Only me in the entire house sir.’’ “Don’t worry, others will come today’’. We conversed.
Two days later, Collins Nasachare, the poet and CEO of Libretto Publishers came in, followed by Ayo Oyeku, author of children`s literature and CEO of 11th House Publishers. The last to arrive the August 2022 cohort of the Ebedi Residency was Seun Damilola Osho who writes short stories and poems and is a fashion designer. There, at last a full ensemble and our experiences in the house begin.
Our first day together began like this. I knock on everyone’s door and roused fellow residents to the dining table at about 9 am. So we sit around the table. “Ok I think we should do it this way’’. Me. “let’s take turns introducing ourselves, say everything you would like to say, including your life aside from being a writer. We shall also ask you any question, whichever you are not comfortable with just say pass’’ . So we began. “My name is Suen Damilola Osho, I write short stories and am a fashion designer’’, he gives us quite revealing details about his odyssey. Young, but he has lived a bit and learnt bunches of lessons. With each person’s turn, we share phone numbers and online details. Next, my name is “Ayo Oyeku, I write children’s literature and have won many awards. I am also the CEO of Eleventh House Press. Ayo, this one is simply unforgettable. A fire cracker, down to earth and kept as laughing every minute of our stay. “My name is Nosachare Collins, I write poems and have also won some awards for them, too. I am the CEO of Libretto Publishers’’. “My name is Omale Allen Abduljabbar, I write stories, Novels, Plays, reviews. Yeah, a few awards, too. I am an Assistant Director with the National Commission for Colleges of Education, Abuja. Civil service has not given me much time to engage with the characters in my head for quite a while now. Ebedi is a blessing and I intend to make a very good use of it.’’
Ok, pretty cool. Now we are strangers no more. The ice is fully shattered.
The interview session continues and we learn personal details about ourselves. Being the oldest, they intermittently sought insights on my perspective and experiences on life. I learnt loads of lessons and insights into the publishing world from them, too.
The house keeper Madam Cecilia comes in later and we set up weekly routine for our feeding. Everyone contributing an amount.
From here, we dig in. Everyone faded to their rooms to write and the house is still. Every morning, we meet for breakfast and continue the discussion sessions. Same question for all “If you are heading for an island, which five books will you carry and why? Your take on the NLNG Literature Prize 2022, who do you think will clinch it and why? Ebedi is a blessing to all African writers, what suggestion do you have to make it greater?” Stuff like these.
And Iseyin town? A man, this place is coooollllddd! Am sure it has something to do with the raining season and the thick forest just behind the Residency. The Wole Soyinka room, so large and spacious with three windows? Yea! Wao, there is always light! Always! I don’t know which part of Nigeria is this. Then the solar in the house, too. Cool. The mosque close by with the muezzin continuously calling me to prayer is quite convenient. Like I said, a sleepy hamlet and predominantly Muslim community, all is cool and calm. Most females both young and old are in hijabs. the atmosphere is very calm. A most ideal get away from the madness of Mararaba Nyanya Abuja where I’ve come from and most city centres of various African countries.
We experience quite fascinating activities in week two when Tunde came to take us out to see the town. “I am professor and you are my viewer, thank you for watching my showoooo’’’ how may remember that song? Wao, so we visit Professor Peller’s house, Nigeria’s pioneer and famous magician. A magnificent mansion harbouring his grave and that of his family members. The house is totally empty. I imagine all the plethora of activities that must have taken place here in his lifetime, the notable and imminent personalities from within and outside the country that must have visited, the parties and celebrations, the array of exotic cars – but today all we meet is the ruins. Some goats and chickens strolling by. Hmmm reminds me of Oxymandias, king of kings, and his mammoth crumbling statue left in the desert. Yeah, all is truly vanity.
“Allen’’, I get a call a again from Dr Okediran, “I want your excursion to be special, not the hanging lake that everyone has been going, you’re going to Wole Soyinka’s house in Abeokuta…”. I rush to the dining area and scream to get everyone out of their rooms. Instantaneously, we are all growing and dancing with joy “we are going to Soyinka’s house, we are going to Soyinka’s house….’’ A passionate dream comes true. We had discussed and wished on this and I was mandated to put the request across to our host but he’s clairvoyant and has been listening to us all the time and grants the wish before we even asked! Oooooooohhhhh!
The Wednesday August 21st that we went to Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka’s house from our residency in Iseyin is akin to a Christmas or Sallah day. Pick any really cool day in your life or culture. I bet we didn’t really sleep much the whole night due to anxiety. I had seen him twice and had my picture taken with him which is framed and hangs in my living room. Bless that 25th day of August 2006 at the International Colloquium on twenty years of his winning the Nobel Prize at the University of Ife. I was Public Relations officer of the Association of Nigerian Authors and had my highest honour and privilege of coordinating\compering the evening of readings in his honour where I shared the world stage with him. Wonderful. There he sat, reading from his newly published memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn and I, hands folded, clutching the mic, awe stricken. “Are we going to see Soyinka?” My team inquires. “if we are lucky’’ I relate Dr Okediran’s response to them.
Mr Bode, Dr Okediran’s personal assistant, had come to sleep at Ebedi the previous day. At 6.47 am we head out to Abeokuta. Bright eyed. Soon we pass Ado Awaya village where the hanging lake is, all the while Nnedi’s Zarah The Windseeker keeps me on a smooth cruise. I turn to Ayo who gave me the book. “Sweet. A magic marvelous tale. This is Ben Okri`s younger sister.’’ An hour later, we arrive Abeokuta and discover its cosmopolitan ensemble compared to Iseyin. At Iya Amuda’s buka, we engage the potentials of hot amala and pomo to settle our quarrel with the spoken word poets in our stomachs.
“…from Dr Wale Okediran, the writers from Ebedi International Residency, do we come straight to the house then?’’ Mr Bode is on the phone with Soyinka’s secretary. “Wao, the dream is real.’’ She said we can proceed to Olumo rock and head afterward to the house.
Olumo rock. One of the major tourist attractions in Ogun State. Located at the heart of Abeokuta, the intersection between Ijemo-Alape road and Ita-Bayinbo. The ultra modern Kampala market on our way there, is another tourist delight of its own. My second time really. We pay at the gate, a N1,000 per head and enter. Beautiful and cool like I recall from my last visit of seven years ago. “I am Kayode. Your guide for the museum. Broad smile on his face, speaking flawless English. Nice. So we enter the museum and he runs us through the exquisite artworks in the hall. Drums and paintings of all kinds and sizes. I notice the song playing from a stereo somewhere and break into a dance, everyone joins in. “what song is that?’’ “Ebenenzer Obey-Egba’’ repliesKayode. “Ah, I want it o!’’. “No problem.’’ He takes my phone and downloads it for me. Kayode, really cool guy. Egba is my current ring tune. We take loads of pictures and videos. I drum and we dance merrily. “Okediran-Ebedi! Okediran-Ebedi…’’ pretty cool and most memorable.
The climb up is as historic, as religious, as educative as it is a much recommended doctor’s exercise. 225 steps thereabout. We meet the priestesses of the deity in the second layer and interact with them, they pray for us and we to the top, taking loads of pictures and videos. The guides schooling us as we move. Finally at the top. We can see the whole of Abeokuta, MKO Abiola family house, first church and Mosque in Abeokuta, Baptist Grammar school where Fela, Obasonjo and many notable Nigerians went. The Abeokuta River on its snaky journey to meet the Atlantic Ocean.
“When I say jump, then you all jump at the same time.’’ The tour guide turned photographer. Like all tourists to this historic site, we jump and capture our last activity on Olumo Rock.
The visit to Prof. Wole Soyinka’s house is expectedly the height of our excursion. We are met by a staff of the Nobel Laureate sent by his secretary who welcomes us on entering the premises. Suddenly finding ourselves at the famous entrance to the forest harbouring the WS house with the trespassing vehicles will be short and eaten sign in Abeokuta is most exciting. At last! Another pilgrimage sight craved by writers all over the world. A brick bungalow house. “Let them come right in,’’ a voice we later get to know as Mrs Joyce Nana Appiah, his housekeeper. Introductions are in after we climb into the house and are now standing in the living room. “Is Prof home Ma?’’ she shakes her head. We are all sad. “He said I should show you around’’. Bode tells her we are the Ebedi four. We start our tour from the study. Shelves, books, artifacts galore. Some would be scary to children. Images of various depictions replete in every conceivable corner. I was thrilled to see his hunting boots by the wall and pick them up for a snap. The living room, bar, balcony and dining area are filled with artifacts. Again we take loads of videos and pictures. “What about where he used to sit and write in the bush?” I asked Joyce. Now she’s in front and leading us out of the house via a narrow footpath that takes us to the open air theater for play performances. Ahead on a slight hill, we discover bamboo huts situated in cool shades where we imagine the Wole Soyinka Residency programme may have been. The place is obviously not in use at the moment. On our way back, we enter a storehouse at the back where I find some awards on a table. The first one I pick is the one given to him by ANA during the event I mentioned earlier in 2006 at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife signed by Wale Okediran and Denja Abdullahi as President and Secretary General, respectively.
Ok, so our visit to the Lion’s den ended here. We revered in the pictures and rare opportunity given us by Ebedi as we plotted our literary longitude and latitude back to Iseyin.
Back at the residency, I proceed with work on my Novel “What Else Are In My Stars?” Now my character DanAsabe, an Al Majiri boy who runs away from his village in Talata Mafara to Abuja for a better life but becomes a baboon handler in a moving circus, made to stab his baboon Smokie by soldiers and out of great despair, stabbing himself too. Treated at the hospital by Senator Sani Morroco, he resides in his house and entreated by his lesbian wives to father their children, he’s caught and sent to Agadez, Niger Republic where he becomes a migrant and later a bandit. Flipped by fate once more, he is about to enlist in the Nigerian Army with the chanced recruitment of civilian JTF and fight his previous colleagues.
In my lull moment, I completed my reading of Nnedi`s Zarah the Wind Seeker and commenced Ifedigbo Sylva Nze’s superb book My mind is longer here which I read all day and completed. Maybe it’s the book, or the fact that I’ve spent four weeks here already, my longest ever from my family; my mind is no longer here.
-Omale Allen Abduljabbar (author of Behold, Your Scented Daughters), Poet, Short Story writer, Novelist and Playwright) August, 2022